Bristol Palin, Mary Cheney and the Limits of Family Privacy

10/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The John McCain campaign says this is a just a private family matter. Sen. Barack Obama says candidates' families, especially children, are off limits. But when family matters relate directly to policy matters, they are fair for discussion.

Obviously, I am referring to the media coverage surrounding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate, and her pregnant, 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. Gov. Palin's family is asking for privacy, yet the policies of Palin's party do not protect the rights of American women to making their own private decisions about unintended pregnancies.

The situation raises legitimate questions about Gov. Palin's positions on sexuality education, teenage pregnancy and reproductive choice. Americans have every right, and American media the responsibility, to explore those questions without exploiting the child involved. After all, Gov. Palin had no hesitancy sharing the details of her son Track's entering the army, or her personal decisions about her infant, as examples of her commitments to family. How could she expect that her daughter's decisions wouldn't be put into play?

According to MSNBC, Gov. Palin has said that keeping the baby was her daughter's own decision. Really? In 2006, Gov. Palin said that she would not support abortion even in the case of her own daughter becoming pregnant from rape. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that there wasn't much discussion about all of Bristol's legal options when she told her parents about her pregnancy.

I'm also wondering how much talk there was about sexual limit-setting beyond "just say no" and contraception in the Palin household. Gov. Palin opposes comprehensive sexuality education, and supports abstinence-only-until-marriage education. If abstinence-only-until-marriage doesn't work in your own home, how can you expect it to work for the country's teenagers?

The research, as I've written in my books for parents, is quite clear. In homes where parents talk openly about sexuality, including their values about premarital sex, contraception and STD prevention, their children are more likely to delay sexual activity and to protect themselves if they do have sex. Comprehensive sexuality education programs have a far better record of helping young people abstain and protect themselves than abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Perhaps Gov. Palin will now reconsider reconsider her (and Sen. McCain's) positions on teenage pregnancy prevention.

"Family privacy" only goes so far. The Clintons were famously protective of their daughter Chelsea's privacy during their years in the White House, and admirably so. Yet it was a legitimate issue for public discussion in 1993 when the Clintons, after campaigning for strong public schools, chose to send their daughter to a private school instead.

Then there was Mary Cheney in 2004. Cheney, no child, nevertheless sheltered behind her parents' indignation when John Kerry raised the question of how the Bush-Cheney ticket's opposition to lesbian and gay civil rights would affect the vice president's own daughter. Rather than address the question, Cheney and wife Lynne excoriated Kerry for violating their family's privacy. Lesbian and gay Americans never got a fair hearing after that. We must not let that happen this time.

My organization recently wrote to both campaigns, urging them to support comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education; access to affordable sexual health and reproductive services, including abortion and adoption services; and full equality, including civil marriage, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. The situation in Gov. Palin's family must not be allowed to shroud these issues. If anything, it makes addressing them even more urgent.